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His foray into wine came in the early 1980s when he established a wine import firm: Michel Monzain Selected Wines. The firm prospered, and he eventually established offices in New York and Los Angeles and even had an interest in a German winery in the Mosel region. He relocated to Dallas after his far-flung offices on the coasts proved too impractical.
Disaster struck in the mid-1980s with a series of scandals after wines from Italy, Germany and Austria were found to have been contaminated with diethylene glycol (an ingredient in antifreeze) and methanol. At least eight deaths in Italy were blamed on the methanol contamination. The scare strangled European wine imports to the United States, and Monzain's business began to unravel.
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But just as his business was collapsing, Monzain says he was approached by Midlothian businessman Tony Sanders, who founded Tony's Wine Warehouse in April 1987. "After eight months and he had lost enough money, he said 'Do you want it? With the debts?'" Monzain says. "He got into it for fun, and the fun got enough." Monzain purchased the business in January 1988. "Our original idea was to go about and buy the total output of some of the special wineries over there [Europe] and bring it back over here," says Sanders, now a real estate investor and close friend of Monzain's. "It's basically the same concept that we started with." Sanders says buying from closeout lists was also part of the strategy.
For the first five years, Monzain ran Tony's strictly as a retail wine shop. But he slowly transformed the business into a wine education source through classes and charity donations. Classes grew steadily from once a month to once a week; eventually, he crowded the schedule with several classes a week. The restaurant came years later at the behest of his customers, he says. The restaurant seems an afterthought, though, as the service is clumsy (some servers don't speak English) and the food mostly mediocre.
Monzain deliberately targets novice wine enthusiasts, eschewing often tiresome wine sophisticates. "The message here is wine is agriculture, not snobbism," he says. "People like our message. The wine snobs don't like our message."
He also seems to have taken a cue from the wine contamination scandals that ravaged his import business. Monzain insists the wines he carries are from small producers and are chemical-free. Taped near Tony's cash register is a recent article about a Dutch study linking wine consumption with a reduced risk of stomach cancer. Scrawled in pen at the top of the article is a caveat: small-production wines only. But are the wines Tony's carries exclusively from small producers?
After perusing Tony's wine stock on several visits, we found two wines with the Silver Ridge label, including the 2001 Barrel Select California Silver Ridge Petite Syrah for $34.95 (suggested retail is $10, according to the winery). Silver Ridge is produced by the Bronco Wine Company of Ceres, California--the fourth-largest winery in the United States, selling an estimated 20 million cases annually, according to Wine Business Monthly. Bronco gained fame with its Charles Shaw wines, nicknamed the "two-buck Chuck" after they went on sale in the Trader Joe's grocery chain for $1.99 a bottle.
The Tony's wine class tasting list includes a Chardonnay and a Merlot from Salmon Creek, also a Bronco brand. Last spring Bronco CEO Fred Franzia, nephew of E. & J. Gallo Winery co-founder Ernest Gallo, challenged restaurants to limit wine list markups and sell Salmon Creek wines for less than $10 a bottle after he offered to set a wholesale price of $2.50. Tony's front-line prices on these wines are $35.95 for the Chardonnay and $34.95 for the Merlot, which drop to $11.98 and $11.65 respectively with case discounts.
Yet Monzain insists Salmon Creek is a small-production label in the Bronco portfolio. Bronco doesn't disclose specific case production figures, but a spokesman for the winery said that the big value/price relationship Bronco is seeking with Salmon Creek requires fairly substantial case production levels.
Monzain shakes his head and pulls a 1992 Gallo Northern Sonoma Estate Bottled Chardonnay from his shelf to illustrate. Just 2,025 cases of this $30 suggested-retail-price wine were produced (he says he sells it for between $50 and $60). "This is handmade," he says, presenting the label. "You think the family is going to drink the other stuff?"
For our case purchase, the salesman offered us tastes of most of the wines he presented but cautioned he would not be able to meet our pricing criteria. "I can help you with ones a little higher up," he said.
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